As a young African American male growing up in an impoverished single-parent home, I never had to think critically about my identity. My environment did not require it. I was immersed in a world where everyone thought like me, enjoyed the same music that I listened to, and had the same taste in fashion. Most people in my community shared the same ambitions that I had, mainly focusing on surviving and attaining financial prosperity. Therefore, there was no diversity of thought to challenge my idiosyncrasies.
When I attended public schools, I remained immersed in an experience that reinforced my life perspectives. I attended Title 1 schools from K-8, and then I matriculated to a high school that could have qualified as a Title 1 school. In other words, I remained surrounded by people who shared my perspective, lived experiences, and interests during the entirety of my adolescent years.
However, I was compelled to begin thinking about my role and place in the world as an African American male when I attended college at Christopher Newport University. Attending college was the first time in my life where I was surrounded by people who were vastly different from myself. The demographics at this institution was the opposite of the demographics in the schools I attended during my K-12 experience. I was immersed in a world that was predominantly White and affluent. Very few people dressed like me or shared the same musical interests that I appreciated. I often felt as if I was living isolated on an island. Undoubtedly, I experienced culture shock.
In this space, I became extremely conscious of my blackness. I remember attending a party off-campus, where I saw a White male dressed in "Blackface." I honestly did not know why he was dressed and painted in that manner. I was naïve. I was unexposed. Ironically, I had been insulated and protected by a community with some of the highest crime rates in the city. I never personally encountered overt racism in the poor public housing complex that I resided in for 17 years before moving on-campus. I honestly believed overt racism only manifested in small towns in the rural South, but certainly not in Virginia's Hampton Roads region. Again, I was naïve and ignorant because I had been sheltered from the other world outside my world.
It was that overtly racist moment that sparked my journey toward self-awareness and social awareness. I changed my major from Business to Sociology. I became more fascinated with philosophical pursuits and understanding the world around me than material gain and financial status. I learned about social stratification, racial identity, and wealth gaps. I took Political Science courses for a couple of semesters and became more aware of the history of radicalized politics, political disenfranchisement, and voter suppression. I explored literature about ancient Africans who created civilizations, built pyramids, and mastered mathematics. I had never been exposed to these intellectual treasures during my K-12 experience. I begin to discover a new academic world that could only be excavated with the tool of intellectual thought and unwavering determination. By this time, I developed a passion for reading and even embraced the identity of a self-proclaimed "Black Philosopher." I had found my purpose.
I ended up transferring to a Historically Black College, Norfolk State University, where I would graduate Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies. I also had a new interest in teaching young people who shared a life experience like mine. I wanted to teach poor urban youth who were unexposed and sheltered from the world beyond their communities. I knew I could relate to this type of student. Therefore, I became an educator and returned to my high school alma mater as a teacher of students with emotional disabilities. My heart was fueled by the desire to inspire young people to discover their purpose and achieve their potential.
I quickly realized that inspiring young people to demonstrate their brilliance was not an easy task because teaching and learning had to occur within the construct of a culturally incongruent system. There was no literature or examples from the students' lived experiences in the school system. Very few educators looked like the students, and very few possessed a deep understanding of the world the students were coming from or returning to once the school day was over. No doubt about it, iniquities were ubiquitous. From the curriculum to the discipline practices, I knew equity for most people was merely an empty buzzword. I struggled to find tangible evidence of a genuine push toward visible equity.
This lack of visible equity is why I have made educational equity my mission as an educator. After maximizing my potential as a teacher, winning teacher of the year, and overall city-wide teacher of the year, I invested all my time and energy into scholarly pursuits and my educational consulting business. I felt I had to impact change from the outside. My goal is to build educator capacity to ensure equity does not become an empty buzzword. I am still committed to this mission today. If anyone desires to embrace the mission of visible equity in education, I suggest the following (5) steps from the "Equity Continuum" I've created:
1. Define equity work in your context.
2. Identify inequities within your context.
3. Analyze and evaluate inequities to establish key areas of focus.
4. Cast a vision, set goals, and coordinate collaboration
5. Address policies, practices, and professional development needs.
Always remember equity is not a strategy; it is a philosophy and a particular lens by which we view the educational system. Let us not just talk about it; let us be about it! Let's commit to making equity visible for every child.
By Jahkari “JT” Taylor
Chief Equity Officer, Purpose Pushers LLC